The slightest figment of hope, even when totally fabricated, may spell relief in an otherwise hopeless situation. Survivors of shipwrecks and other disasters have often proved the power of hope. Mourning their lost comrades who died in dispair, survivors recount how they continued to support themselves with fantasies of being rescued. Sometimes optimism, even if irrational, has greater value than more realistic approximations to truth.
Recently I was fortunate to read a book which helped me to experience this paradox in a novel way. Weeping Willow (Farrar Stroux) is a book I ordinarily would not have read. Working so much with the printed word, reading fiction is not something I usually choose for my leisure time. Moreover, this particular book was written primarily for teenage girls. It's the sort of book they'd love, detailing a young woman's coming of age within a poor family in the Virginia mountains, struggling to emerge from the last years of high school out into a larger world. I read the book out of respect for the author, Ruth White, who is one of A.R.E.'s librarians. It is her second book. I recall browsing through her first, Sweet Creek Holler, which won an American Library Association award as a Notable Children's Book. I had put it down because of the subject matter and presumed adolescent audience, but was haunted later by its deceptively simple style of writing and the mood the mountain dialect evoked. When Ruth gave me a copy of her new book, I immediately sat down and read it. As I was nearing the end of the story, I began to cry. I didn't know why I was responding this way to a "kids book" and felt somewhat embarrased with myself. By the end of the book, however, there was no holding back my uncontrollable tears and I was heaving sobs of release. Later that day I found myself blurting out to people feelings I would normally keep to myself. I could not deny that the book had exerted a powerful, if mysterious, effect on me. It remained on my mind for over a week as I pondered its meaning.
The tale is about a girl named Tiny whose prospects for the future are grim. Poverty, being needed around the home, and a lack of expectations in the community narrow her chances of stepping out. Her meager pickings are further sullied by the specter of incest by a step-father. The book handles this topic very gracefully but we can feel the depressing, life draining effects it has on Tiny. There is a happy ending, however. What turns things around? The book begins with a vignette showing how an unsympathetic school teacher forces a young Tiny to disavow her imaginary playmate, "Willa." Periodically through the story she tries to call Willa back, but to no avail. Only when she is in deep dispair over her encounters with her stepfather does Willa return to comfort her. Just as in many documented cases of real life victims of childhood abuse who find their companionable imagination and inner voices to have paranormal ablities, so does Tiny find Willa providing some special guidance that saves the day in a critical moment. By responding to her inner guidance, Tiny is able to face an important challenge and graduates from survival into the larger world of success.
I now know why the book affected me so profoundly. Several times in my life I have known hopelessness, whether through addictions, depression, or interpersonal tangles. I was saved from my first encounter with hopelessness almost magically. The second time around, however, I had to participate more actively in my own rescue. Through successive encounters I was learning, as has every wounded healer, Cayce's secret of transforming crisis to creativity. I discovered that I have an imaginary companion who has a special magic. The companion doesn't usually appear as a vision of a superior being, or as a fairy god mother, or even as a fairy. It usually comes first simply as "The One Who Listens." This friendly ear appears as I become willing to listen to myself. If I have to resort to basics, I get my journal and write how I feel and have an imaginary good listener write out, without judgment or interpretation, simply a "receipt" for what I said ("What I hear you saying is..."). The "One Who Listens" becomes the hint of a special companion. Receiving the gift of listening calms me, my feelings begin to unravel, and a natural intelligence appears. What was at first mere listening now becomes a gateway to wisdom, a companion with guidance. The acceptance of my feelings begins a process of recovery of the ability to hope.
Throughout most of the book, Tiny's attitude toward her life has a special quality. Even if only by dint of the author's use of a first person style, Tiny can acknowledge her feelings. Her breakout to success isn't all to Willa's credit. At a critical moment Tiny herself takes action. Hers is an act of listening. She listens to herself and she hears a clue her little sister's been giving her. Then she gets her mother to listen. These little acts of listening bring about significant change.
Sometimes we can feel too helpless to initiate change and, as Tiny and I both know, self-hatred may seem to be the only thing we can still assert. You may find, however, as we both did by listening even to our self-hate, that there is something good inside, a core untouched by life's wounds, that welcomes us home like the prodigal child returned to awareness. Accompanied by sweet and sour tears, sadness now recognized at a new level of acceptance becomes sadness now open to hope.
A book of fiction for children turns out to be not fiction at all, and not for children only. A simple truth, well told--I wish all my non-fiction reading were as valuable.
To read Henry's essays on other interesting books in the field of consciousness, spirituality, dreams